Belfast Synagogue has been a recurring location in my life over the past few years. I’ve toured it, been to a concert in it, and on Wednesday night returned to see the play This Is What We Sang as part of the 2009 Belfast Festival at Queen’s.
Written by Gavin Kostick, the play looks back at the story of a Jewish family in Belfast. Kabosh Theatre Company specialise in drama constructed for a particular space, and the 1960s synagogue is a marvellous setting.
With their white clothes shining in the limited spotlights, the five characters remain on the stages constructed around the synagogue throughout the single act performance. First to speak, Lev’s back story begins with his arrival on a boat into Hull rather than New York. Landing short he felt swindled.
“Hull, a stinky smelly place ... worse than Manchester.”
His opening monologue charts how he moved across to Belfast, along with his brother. While Saul‘s gift was music and revolving around singing in the synagogue, Lev went into partnership with a local furniture maker, building up a good business, and buying a three bedroom house. But aged 39, affluent and single, he travelled across to Leeds to meet 23 year old Hannah.
For her it was love at first sight ... when she saw Lev’s brother Saul at Belfast dock. But she stuck with Lev, and had a double wedding with her sister who married Saul. And so the foundation for the dramatic tension is laid.
The only present-day character is Bill - Lev’s great grandson. Laid off from the collapsed Lehman Brothers, he’s come to Belfast at the request of his dying Great Aunt Sissy, Lev’s daughter. Single all her life, she’s putting her estate into order.
It is as Bill explores Sissy’s life story that the audience learns about the complexity of the other characters lives. There’s a steady pace as the layers build up: marriage, children, betrayal, loyalty, death. Each character starts off talking about what they might repent of. For many there are certainly regrets. But repentance is harder. Near the end, Bill explains:
“Who am I to judge? Do I have a right to say this was a good thing to do; this a bad; so and so was a good person; so and so was wicked? What can you say? That they lived. They were here. They did the best they could. in the time they were in.
When I come to the end of my days and my story is told, will I abide the account? But I have no desire to get to the end of my days yet. You know you can’t put right what was done wrong.
Atonement - it’s too big for me.”
Yet in the process of exploring his family’s past, the contract-driven, legally minded Bill discovers a freedom from duty and a joy in being driven by feelings rather than results. And perhaps his new approach to life is a form of atonement for his past career.
One actor never speaks. Saul sits and stands in the middle. As cantor, he rises to sing at various points in the play. We know that he’s poor but happy. No gets rich being cantor, but the Jewish community value him. He’s crucial to the family’s story, yet he remains a mystery. Only expressing himself - beautifully - through song.
It’s an excellent play, with minimal cast and set. A docu-drama in which whilst the unravelling family tale is fictional, the geographic and historical scaffolding is true. As the play unfolds, you hear about Rabbi Hertzog (who went on be Chief Rabbi of Israel while his son became President of Israel), the Millisle Farm (that sheltered Eastern European children from Jewish families during the Second World War), the Belfast Blitz as well as customs and traditions from Jewish culture. The information is dropped into the dialogue quite naturally, and you come out feeling better informed rather than formally educated.
There are still some tickets available for performances next week. It’s well worth a trip up to Somerton Road to see.